Latinos/Hispanics are people with ancestry in Latin-American countries or the US Southwest, which was part of Mexico prior to 1848. The term "Hispanic," which has been used by the US government since the 1970s, includes people whose ancestry can be traced back to Spain and other Spanish-speaking countries; it tends to emphasize European ancestry. Because many people choose not to trace their ancestry back to Europe, or hail from Latin-American countries that are not Spanish-dominant, the term "Latino" is increasingly a preferred term for individuals of Latin-American heritage. "Latino" also is written as "Latino/a" or "Latina/o"; this designation combines the male designation of Latin o in Spanish with the female designation of Latin a to emphasize reference to both women and men. For the sake of clarity, the term "Latino" is used here to refer to both women and men.
As individuals with ancestry in countries with radically different histories, cultures, and relationships to the United States, Latinos are a diverse group. These histories contribute to widely varied situations for Latinos in the United States in terms of class, education, and citizenship. Latinos also span a range of races as defined by the US census. Mexican Americans made up the largest group of Latinos in the United States in 2000, comprising about 58.5 percent of all Latinos, followed by Puerto Ricans (10%), Cuban Americans (3.5%), and smaller but rapidly increasing numbers of Latinos of Central and South American descent. While Spanish-language usage is at times a commonality among Latinos, that is not always the case, as US Latinos may or may not speak Spanish.
Latinos have undergone an eventful evolution both behind the scenes and on the screen in American film. The participation of Latinos in American film is increasingly important to film scholarship, as the Latino population in the United States continues to grow rapidly. Latinos currently are the largest nonwhite group in the United States, comprising an estimated 13.7 percent of the population in 2003, according to the US Census Bureau.